Coming out of the 2020 NBA Bubble experience it sort of felt like Chris Boucher had reached a plateau. The Toronto Raptors' forward played 43 minutes in the playoffs — most of which came in garbage time — and couldn't really find a way to make an impact. It appeared as though he was never going to be big enough to play center nor skilled enough to play forward.
When the Raptors awarded him with a two-year, $13.5 million partially guaranteed contract they were by no means committing to Boucher long-term. It was a very nice 'let's take another look' contract more so than a 'we want you as part of the core' deal.
What it did was force Boucher into a summer of hard work. He wasn't just working out in the gym trying to change his unchangeable 6-foot-9, 200-pound frame, he was trying to learn. Day after day he said watched tape, trying to figure out how to maximize his unusual body.
When he came back to start the 2020-21 season Boucher looked like a much more refined version of himself. He punched through that Bubble ceiling and showed he's far more skilled than ever before. His breakout season is why he finished sixth in the NBA in Most Improved Player voting and the Raptors' clear frontrunner for the team's most improved player.
Boucher's year-over-year improvements were staggering last season. He doubled his points per game to 13.6 points per night, became a more well-rounded rebounder, and a lethal 3-point shooter. His pick-and-roll offense was among the league's best — ranked in the 79th percentile — and his above-the-break 3-point shooting was the fourth-best among NBA centers. Most importantly, the Raptors were +7.7 points better per 100 possessions when Boucher was on the court, per Cleaning the Glass.
"I finally got an opportunity, a consistent one," Boucher during his season-ending media availability. "When the opportunity showed up, I had the chance to use it. Guys like Fred [VanVleet], Pascal [Siakam], Kyle [Lowry] — they stayed on me to get better."
For as much growth as Boucher showed, the 2020-21 season was also a learning experience for Boucher and the team. It became clear that the Montreal native is better off playing a forward or wing spot than the center position. While he has some ability to stretch the floor and pull opposing bigs out of the paint, he's not quite strong enough to man the paint and contest the defensive glass against other supersized centers.
That was a painful lesson for Toronto to learn this season, but once Raptors coach Nick Nurse moved Boucher down a spot things evened out a little more. It allowed Boucher to roam the defensive zone more freely, using his wiry length and long arms to sprint out to the perimeter and contest shooters. While it wasn't always pretty — he fouled far too many 3-point shooters — it was clear his best spot is playing the freelancer in Toronto's aggressive defensive system.
"I’m kind of finding a groove guarding a different position and knowing when to help and when I have to stay, closing out to the corners," Boucher said. "It’s an adjustment but I really enjoyed the process of it and I just want to get better."
The key for Boucher next season will be learning to become a little bit more consistent. He had some astonishing 30-point performances last season, but the Raptors aren't so concerned about what he does on those nights where his shots are really falling. What Nurse really wants to see is how Boucher looks on those other nights. Can he defend the perimeter and hold his own in switch situations? Is he fouling 3-point shooters? Can he develop a little more playmaking skills to take his pick-and-roll offense to an even higher level? Those are the questions Boucher is trying to get answers to this summer. He said he plans on watching OG Anunoby and Siakam to try to understand what they've done to make themselves so successful.
"Sometimes you drive and two guys are there so there’s the pass to the corner. Those are the things I have to read," Boucher said "I have to realize that when I drive the [center] is in the dunker [position] and I have to be able to find him. There’s a lot of different stuff like that."
At 28 years old it's unlikely Boucher is going to make another jump into a truly impact starter. His ideal position is a high-energy forward off the bench who can come in for stretches, nail a few 3-pointers, block a few shots, and give Anunoby and Siakam a break for 20 or so minutes a night. These days, that's an extremely useful player, especially on a team-friendly $7 million contract for next season. But putting a ceiling on Boucher's skills has been a mistake other teams have made throughout his basketball career. If he can show improvements next season like the kind he made this past year, the Raptors will once again have found another diamond in the rough.